Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Good times in WA and less good times in the UK

The announcement in May of the redevelopment of the WA Museum is good news, but has been a long term in coming. It had a false start along the way in 2008, when under Dawn Casey's directorship the Museum's relocation to the old Swan River powerstation was announced. Although the monies were about the same for the latter project, about half was going to be eaten up by site remediation. And it seems to be generally agreed in Perth that the powerstation was not a good site being off the tourist track and difficult to access.
So the new plan sounds a whole lot better way to spend the not inconsiderable sum of $428.3 million.  
What the good citizens of WA will get for their money is 23,000 m2 of museum, including various refurbished heritage buildings with 8,500 m2 of public spaces, themed around Being Western Australian, Discovering Western Australia and Exploring Our World, and 1,000m2 of temporary exhibition space.

As Australian museum projects go it dwarfs anything we have seen of late, which admittedly has tended to be new wings ($50m at MCA in 2012,  $45m at the Australian Museum in in 2008), is almost 4 times the cost of GOMA (2006) in Brisbane, is twice the cost of the National Museum (2001) and significantly more than the Melbourne Museum (1998). The challenge will be for the director, Alec Coles, to hold onto the funds over various budget cycles. There is no doubt that Coles is a smart political operator and much of the credit for getting this over the line is due to him, but Bill Bleathman, the able director of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, saw the promise of a similar sum whittled away to a paltry $30m for their current redevelopment.

From the largesse of WA’s booming mining driven economy to the other end of the spectrum, and it's interesting to see what happens to museums in an economy that is really being hit hard, namely the UK. The raw facts are that 42% of UK Museums Association member institutions have cut staff in the past year according to their most recent survey, and a quarter have had to close all or part of their sites. Bear in mind that this is what happened in 2011, after at least 2 years prior to that of a similar picture. But the good news is that out of adversity in true British fashion there are good things evolving (and it's not just the lift to the spirits that the Olympics is bringing).  The survey is peppered with comments such as " Challenge does foster resourcefulness", 'There is a more pragmatic approach to service delivery", ' the sector will emerge more radical and responsive to the social needs of the public', and 'being more entrepreneurial has to be good for museums and galleries in the long term'.  Add to this increasing visitor numbers, and 36% of members saying the quality of their services will increase over the coming year ( up from 13% the previous) and it all sounds positively rosy. To top it all, UK public support for the return of the Elgin marbles to Greece is on the decline, because there is real concern that Greece's dire financial state would mean they will be unable to properly care for them. Not sure that view is going to hold water in the long term, but for now it will keep the British Museum’s 6 million annual visitors (and rising) happy. 

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Environmental Guidelines for museums - an update

I helped convene a seminar at the Australian Museum ten days ago entitled “ Sustainable Buildings for Sustainable Collections – we talk the talk, but can we walk the walk? The impetus for the event came from Morten Rhyl –Svendsen being in Sydney. Morten is from the Danish National Museum, an organisation which has led the way over the last decade in researching and more importantly publishing findings on the optimum method to store museum collections when combining the needs of the objects with energy saving opportunities. Tim Padfield established the Research Centre in the 1970s and Morten is part of the next generation of researchers who are taking the lead in this important area, so it was great to hear where that research is heading.

This is now about not just relaxed temperature and relative humidity parameters, but also about the number of air exchanges, the amount of recycled as against fresh air and isoperms - the rate of decay of objects as determined by the temperature and RH in which they are stored, e.g an object that will last 100 years at an average storage temperature of 22C will last 1000 years at a  temp of 15C. Check out a rather complicated explanation of isoperms here.  

Morten’s keynote was followed by a series of short talks on the science of sustainable environments for museums and the interaction that is required between conservators (determining what climate variance objects can cope with), building managers (advising what climate controls the museum's HVAC system can deliver), and visitor services staff (stating what climate variances visitors will put up with).  

What became clear to me is that the conservator/building manager relationship, where it works well, can deliver some real wins in this area. But the big decisions on the carbon footprint of the institution have to be made at executive level, and the good news is that whilst the debate to date may only have had passing resonance with this level, now that energy cost increases are really beginning to bite, they are sitting up and being prepared to listen. The work that the State Library of Victoria has been undertaking quietly but progressively in very substantially reducing the reliance on HVAC systems to maintain an appropriate environment for the Library's book storage areas has finally gained the attention of the Library's Governing Council.

However the question that I continue to be asked is when are the new relaxed parameters for temperature and RH going to be released. It's a fair call as the AICCM Task force for Guidelines for Museums and Galleries, which I chair, is long overdue in delivering these. As I pointed out in a previous blog this is partly due to the position the National Gallery in the UK is taking by if anything hardening their position. But the reality as I always now spell out is that we have now moved beyond dictating prescriptive blanket conditions and into an era of making evidence-based decisions on what is right for a collection or museum. This means that we have got to understand the particular vulnerabilities and risks of our collections  and the environmental performance capabilities of our buildings and HVAC plant.

That's a daunting task if you are a small regional museum or gallery, but the good news is that there is an increasing amount of literature available to guide you through the process, and the outcome will mean you have a much more in-depth knowledge of the physical state of your collections and the capabilities of your buildings.

Julian Bickersteth
Managing Director